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International relations

Trump withdraws just-announced North Korea sanctions

President 'likes' Kim Jong Un, White House spokesperson says

Denuclearization talks have stalled since the failed summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday reversed North Korea-related sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury just a day earlier and the White House said he was doing so because he "likes" North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and did not consider them necessary.

"It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large-scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea," Trump tweeted from his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago. "I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"

There were no new U.S. sanctions on North Korea announced on Friday and Trump was apparently referring to the U.S. Treasury's blacklisting on Thursday of two Chinese shipping companies that it said helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of, but said: "President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary."

The White House and the U.S. Treasury did not immediately respond to requests for clarification. The State Department referred queries to the White House.

Trump's Twitter post appeared not only at odds with the Treasury Department, but with his own national security adviser, John Bolton, a hard-liner who North Korea blamed for the breakdown of a second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi last month.

The sanctions on the Chinese shippers announced on Thursday were the first since the summit, which collapsed over conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and by the United States for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Despite the collapse of the Feb. 27-28 summit, Trump has stressed his good personal relationship with Kim and his administration has said repeatedly it is willing to reengage.

There has been no sign of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang since Hanoi, however, and North Korea has warned it is considering suspending talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests, in place since 2017, unless Washington makes concessions.

Hours after Thursday's sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with South Korea, a major setback for Seoul, which has pushed hard for engagement between Washington and Pyongyang.

Harry Kazianis of the conservative Center for the National Interest think tank said Trump's move could be an effort to defuse tensions that seemed to be building between Washington and Pyongyang and the risk of North Korea pulling out of talks.

"Trump's cancelling out of sanctions might have been a bid to get North Korea to change its thinking," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on March 4 he was hopeful he could send a team to North Korea "in the next couple of weeks," but there has been no sign of a North Korean willingness to extend such an invitation.

Another North Korea expert, Bruce Klingner, said that while Thursday's Treasury action was limited, an accompanying notice seemed to hint of stronger future actions.

Klingner said Trump's move signaled that his "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign on North Korea was not going to get any stronger and recalled an announcement the president made before a first summit with Kim in June last year when he said he was putting a large list of planned sanctions on hold.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have sought tougher sanctions immediately criticized Trump's move.

"Maximum Pressure means sanctioning North Korea’s enablers. Treasury was right - sanctions should be imposed, as is required by U.S. law. Strategic Patience failed. Don’t repeat it," Republican Cory Gardner, chair of the Senate committee on East Asia, said, referring to an Obama-era policy much criticized by the Trump administration.

"Foolish naïveté is dangerous enough. Gross incompetence and disarray in the White House make it even worse," said Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Senator Chris Van Hollen said it showed Trump was being "played" by Kim, "one of the world’s most vicious dictators."

"Sidestepping his own Treasury Dept. and withdrawing sanctions against North Korea the same day they were announced defies logic," he said in a tweet.

On Monday, Gardner and Democratic Senator Ed Markey called on the Trump administration to correct a slowing pace of U.S. sanctions designations on North Korea, saying there had been a marked decline in the past year of U.S. engagement with Pyongyang.

U.S. officials who briefed shortly after Thursday's sanctions were unveiled said they were proof Washington intended to keep up pressure on Pyongyang, and Bolton tweeted on Thursday:

"Important actions today from @USTreasury. The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea's illicit shipping practices. Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea's sanctions evasion."

Bolton said early this month the United States would look at ramping up sanctions on North Korea if Pyongyang did not scrap its nuclear weapons program.

A senior White House official who briefed on the latest sanctions on Thursday said the announcement was meant to maintain sanctions enforcement rather than intensify pressure.

While declining to say whether Washington was trying to send a post-summit message to Pyongyang with the sanctions, the official said Trump had "made clear that the door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea."

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